Point of View

NC wrongly stripping environmental protections from overburdened communities

January 20, 2014 

Although African-American communities in North Carolina are more than twice as likely as others to be burdened with landfills and other solid-waste facilities, chances are, more environmental misery could be headed their way.

Lawmakers this year substantially limited the protections for such communities provided in environmental justice legislation that the General Assembly passed in 2007.

That statute prohibited the Department of Environment and Natural Resources from issuing a permit for a new solid waste facility if “the cumulative impact of the proposed facility, when considered in relation to other similar impacts of facilities located or proposed in the community, would have a disproportionate adverse impact on a minority or low-income community protected by Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.” This year they added a sentence, “This subdivision shall apply only to the extent required by federal law.”

The full effect of this change is unknown, but the intent is clear: To reduce protections for minority and low-income communities that are already disproportionately burdened by landfills. Title VI prohibits racial discrimination in the use of federal money. In its enforcement, federal agencies accept proof of a disparate racial impact, such as the new report shows, without requiring direct proof of discriminatory intent. Unfortunately Title VI governs only the use of federal money, so that this amendment could make it easier for counties and private solid waste companies to burden already overburdened communities, so long as they do not use any federal money.

Statutory protection of these communities is critical because of the substantial evidence of discriminatory racial impact in siting environmentally hazardous land uses. The State of Exclusion report examines all North Carolina communities where more than 75 percent are people of color and their access to safe and affordable housing, public infrastructure, equitable educational opportunities and political representation, in addition to studying their exposure to polluting facilities. Across the state the exposure rate to solid waste facilities permitted by DENR is 5.35 percent; in other words, on average 5.35 percent of all North Carolinians live within a mile of such a facility.

But residents of these communities that are majority African-American have nearly double the exposure rate, 10.36 percent. This disproportionate exposure is even worse in Piedmont counties and in the state’s wealthiest 20 counties.

Interactive maps available at uncinclusionproject.org show the location of all permitted solid waste facilities and their proximity to hyper-segregated excluded communities. The data show that for some counties the disparity faced by these communities is extreme, with exposure rates several times that of the average county resident.

Randolph County has the worst disparities in N.C. in exposure to solid waste facilities between residents of racially excluded communities and the county as a whole. The county is 89 percent white, with 7.9 percent of residents, on average, living within one mile of a solid waste facility. For the few communities that are 75 percent or more nonwhite, however, the exposure rate increases almost ten-fold, to 72.5 percent.

Three of the county’s operating facilities, two landfills and a transfer station, are in the historic African-American neighborhood of East Asheboro. The only two other facilities, a closed landfill and a transfer station, are only a couple miles away and are also nearby majority people of color neighborhoods. Most of the rest of the county is less densely populated and over 90 percent white and has no state-regulated solid waste facilities at all.

Now, under the new statute, the county seeks to add a massive regional landfill and build it in the same place where the existing facilities already disproportionately burden low-wealth African-American communities, a location that would have been expressly prohibited under the old statute. The new 200-acre landfill seeks to import waste from the entire Piedmont region, 1,500 tons a day. Allowing it go forward makes us all complicit in environmental racism and entrenches the severe impacts of racial exclusion in North Carolina.

Peter H. Gilbert is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the UNC Center for Civil Rights in Chapel Hill.

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